Judaism and the Body

Question:  I’m writing a paper on spirituality and I need to know a source on the earliest clear presentation on the anthropological view of the make-up of man from a Jewish perspective.  The earlier the better.  Does it mirror the Greek view or how does it differ? Body, soul, spirit with the soul or spirit being eternal for the individual or something other than this?

Answer: The best initial source I can point you to is a book called The Death of Death, by Rabbi Neil Gillman.  It contains a discussion of the meaning of death and the composition of the body in both early and late Biblical thought, as well as Rabbinic times.  It will also point you, through footnotes, to other sources which might help.

Question: is cosmetic/plastic surgery allowed by Jewish law?  Why or why not?

Answer: There are two reasons for cosmetic surgery — therapeutic reasons, intended to restore something that was damaged (e.g., breast reconstruction for a woman who had a radical mastectomy or surgery on burn victims); and aesthetic reasons, such as for a person who believes that her (because such surgery is requested by women many, many, times more than men) nose is too large or her breasts are too small.

In any surgery, the risks must be weighed against the benefits.  We have an obligation to preserve our lives and our health, and should not consider surgery lightly.  In general, if the health benefit of a particular procedure is minor, we are only permitted to undergo that procedure if the risks are also minor.  If the surgery is extremely risky, we should not consider it unless the potential benefits are correspondingly major.

The risks of cosmetic surgery, whether for aesthetic or therapeutic reasons, are generally minor.  The benefits, in cases such as the repair of burned skin, might be major both in medical terms (prevention of infection) and in psychological terms.  If their is a medical benefit to a cosmetic procedure, then this form of healing would not only be permitted, but in many cases mandated.

Since the risks are minor, there are no solid grounds for prohibiting cosmetic surgery even for aesthetic reasons.  However, there are some non-halakhic reasons to step carefully when considering such procedures.  First of all, one should consider why it is that very few men consider cosmetic surgery as opposed to women.  There is social pressure placed on teenage girls and women to measure themselves against women portrayed in mainstream media — movies, television, and magazines.  Ultimately, it would be better for each person to realize that she is created in the image of God regardless of physical appearance, and that alone makes each human being of infinite value.

There is a story in the Talmud (Ta’anit 20a) of Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon, who sees an extremely ugly man.  The man says, “Shalom, Rabbi.”  Rabbi Elazar says, “Is everyone in your city as ugly as you?”  The man replied, “I don’t know, but go and say to the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is this utensil you have made!’ “  Rabbi Elazar immediately realized his mistake and apologized.

The last chapter of Proverbs (31:30) teaches, “Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory; it is for her fear of Adonai that a woman is to be praised.”  Ultimately, physical beauty is transitory.  We will be most remembered for the kind of life we have led, rather than the number of people who stopped us on the street and say, “Oh my, what a gorgeous face you have — who was your surgeon?”

Source:  Matters of Life and Death, by Rabbi Elliot Dorff.

Question:  My friend started smoking.  I want to help her, because I know what it can do to you.  What should I do?

Answer: You are right to be concerned about your friend.  Smoking is dangerous, and it is in fact against halakha (Jewish law) to smoke, because we are commanded to preserve our health and it is forbidden to do anything that damages our health or our bodies.

You should tell your friend that you are very concerned about her, and since smoking is dangerous for her health and very addictive, you think she should stop smoking now before she becomes addicted and finds it physically difficult to quit.  Tell her that she is a good friend, and you don’t want her to get cancer, emphasema or other smoking-related illnesses; and that smoking makes her smell bad, making it unpleasant to be around her.  If she ever smokes around you, tell her that you will leave immediately.  Tell her that you want her to live a long and healthy life – you want to be friends with her for a long time, and you are very concerned about her smoking.

I have a feeling from your note that you are a young person.  It is also illegal for her to be smoking, and you may want to tell her parents that she is smoking.  Before you do this, however, you should talk it over with your own parents.

Question:  I am a seventeen year old; I am a zionist, and I was Bat Mitzvahed (sic).  I am quite liberal, yet feel some connection to traditional Judaism.

My question is this: I know that tattoos and genitalia piercing are forbidden, but what about henna dyes? Recently I saw an Indian woman with a henna dye flower design that covered her foot and ankle. I heard that women in sephardic marriages also take part in this beautification/ embellishment practice. The henna is a natural vegetable dye and fades after a few months. I take it henna designs on the foot or ankle are not in the same category as piercing/ tattooing (because piercing and tattooing are permanent) but could you clarify and tell me a little more about this practice?

Answer: The use of henna dyes is indeed a Sephardic tradition, not only at weddings but also at other celebrations like B’nai Mitzvah.  I believe the symbolism represents a wish that the happiness of the simcha should last for a long time, just as the henna design lasts for a long time.

Given that henna is not permanent, and thus is not a permanent disfiguration of the body like a tattoo, and given that its use is an established custom in the Sephardic Jewish community, henna should be permitted according to halacha.

However – since you are only 17, I don’t want you to take this note as permission from me to paint flowers on your body without checking with your parents first!

Question:  Ok my question is about tattoos.  Can you be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you get one?

Answer: Marring the body with a tattoo is unquestionably against thousands of years of Jewish tradition, which considers that God has loaned us our body for our soul to use and take care of properly.  Nevertheless, one who has sinned by getting a tattoo is still eligible to be buried in a Jewish cemetery just as one who committed many other sins may be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Please, do not get a tattoo!

Question:  My daughter has recently inquired about getting a tattoo.  I know one reason we are not supposed to have tattoos is because God has forbid us to mutilate our bodies.  Her argument, though, is that she has her ears pierced, so why is it not OK to get a tattoo?  I am not going to allow her to get one anyway, but I would like to know if there is some other argument I can use.

Answer: Jewish tradition asserts that our bodies were created in the image of God when God fashioned the human being, Adam, out of the earth, and breathed the breath of life into him.  Because of this, our body is a sacred vessels to contain our soul.  In short, we believe that God loaned us our body for our soul to use while we are alive, and we are responsible for good stewardship of it.

Marring the body with a tattoo unquestionably goes against thousands of years of Jewish tradition.  The piercing of ears (and even the nose), however, has a long history going back to pre-Biblical times.  The Torah describes Israelite women wearing rings in their ears and nose (and having them taken away by the men to create the golden calf); and also notes that piercing the earlobes of slaves indicates perpetual slavery.

I believe the Torah and rabbinic tradition understood piercing the skin differently than drawing on the skin. The former will heal (or at least become nearly invisible) if allowed, and the latter is permanent.

Question:  Quick question- is Judaism opposed to eyebrow (or any) piercing? I read some of the commentary on piercing in one of the previous questions, but I was unclear as to the answer.  If I went to a shul on Shabbat, for example, with a ring in my eyebrow, would I be looked down on there?

Answer: Two recent teshuvot (responsa) on the subject of body piercing by Rabbis Alan Lucas and David Golinkin discussed the issue.

First, non-permanent piercings of body parts do not violate any particular mitzvah in the Torah.  However, according to Rabbi Golinkin, piercings in sexual organs do violate the Jewish directives of tzniyut, modesty.

Second, however, our obligation to preserve the health of our body mandates that any piercings be done under sterile conditions by those medically qualified to address concerns of disease and infection.

Third, the mitzvah of “fearing one’s parents,” (Leviticus 19:3) mandates that children and teenagers may not pierce body parts against the will of their parents.

However, there is still a strong sense among Jews that we should value the body to a greater extent than the minimums discussed in these teshuvot.  Just because the Torah does not explicitly prohibit something does not mean that it is a good idea to begin doing it.  While I would chastise any member of my congregation who publicly humiliated a guest because he or she was multiply pierced, I would also suppose that the pierced individual was seeking extra attention for his/her unusual appearance — otherwise, why bother placing rings in non-standard places!?  In other words, if you make the choice to alter the appearance God gave you in ways that are designed to attract attention, you can’t complain too much that some of the attention you receive is negative.

Question:  Can someone with a belly button ring be buried in a Jewish cemetery?  How about other body piercing?

Answer: Many forms of body piercing, while Jewishly problematic, are not necessary a violation of Jewish law.  Since Jewish tradition believes that God has loaned us our body for our soul to use, and we are obliged to take proper care of it, multiple or unusual piercing is to be discouraged, although is is not prohibited.  However, piercing of sexual organs is to be prohibited as a violation of traditions of tzniyut, modesty.  One who has a pierced body part (even sexual organs) is eligible to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

In any case, please do not go out and get any part of your body (except perhaps the lobes of your ears) pierced!

Question:  Deuteronomy 22:5 says a woman should not wear men’s clothing and a man should not wear women’s clothing.  Is it permissible for women to wear clothing normally worn by a man such as pants even if they are made for women?  If so, does the Torah permit activities of a transvestite.

Answer: The interpretation of Deuteronomy 22:5 is rooted in one’s culture.  Our culture tells us which articles of clothing are men’s clothing, and which articles of clothing are women’s clothing.  Most kinds of casual pants are designed to be worn by both men and women.  Certainly, pants designed for women may be worn by women and should not be worn by men, and pants which are specifically designed for men (and look unlike any pants designed for women) should not be worn by women.

The intent of this verse is to prohibit the behavior of a transvestite, by prohibiting the wearing of clothing that is specifically designed to be worn by members of the opposite sex.